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Life Lessons: Beyond LEED

RAFI has worked with USGBC LEED performance standards since the organization’s earliest days. The firm’s senior principal Dr. Fielden used the performance standards as guidelines in his architectural teaching, with his mentoring of young architects and extensively within RAFI’s realm of practice.

Today, in the USA there is also the Green Globes rating system, the Living Building Challenge and NZEB, that rates net-zero contributions. There is SITES, that scores development projects, the WELL Building Standard that scores impacts buildings have on users’ health; and, there are a number of other important international rating programs that exist for projects to be constructed in those countries.

When serving NASA, the agency follows the WBDG (Whole Building Design Guide). In supporting the program, NASA has implemented a NASA Facilities Design Guide that addresses construction design activities and a NASA Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) Guidebook that helps design teams better plan, design, construct and keep maintenance and operations costs for NASA facilities at a minimum. RAFI uses both documents to train and prepare staff for working with the agency and staff at the Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Most all that is required to achieve a LEED Silver rating is now mandated within the current International Building Code, the IBC; so all new structures address LEED’s basic principles. But sustainability does not end with achieving design requirements within the IBC. Sustainability must address the issues surrounding Place particularly: the nexus of longitude and latitude – a characteristic that makes every site and project unique into itself.

Additionally, beyond geographic and climatic circumstances, sustainability addresses issues pertaining to history, culture, society, economics and infrastructure and the influence each has upon Place. Whether we believe in it or not climate change is here. From the time of the Industrial Revolution the amount of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere has caused the Earth’s temperatures to rise one-degree Fahrenheit – hence the term: global warming.

Today, climate scientists indicate there is already enough additional carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere to raise the global temperature by an additional one-half to two degrees Fahrenheit. The results of increasing temperatures are readably observable in nature and in the rampant increases in glacial melting around the world. It’s also observable in the rise of famine and wars seeking resources to extend survival.

Since it’s here what can we expect to occur?

One, the amount of desertification across the central portions of the United States will increase; two, more invasive disease carrying insects and vermin infestations will impact human and livestock health as well as agriculture, plant life, our forests and streams. Oceans are already rising.

Over the next two decades many inhabited islands within the Pacific Ocean will be submerged. Our nation’s coastlines will shrink significantly impacting every aspect of American life and our economy. People, communities and economic assets will be forced to relocate and resettle inwards. Harbors will change and shipping ports will have to be moved and rebuilt as will all forms of infrastructure serving the coasts. Alterations to Miami alone are expected to exceed a half trillion dollars.

What happens here happens elsewhere too. The economic costs of climate change to the world will be immeasurable. Finally, weather everywhere is expected to be more chaotic. Larger and more intense storms, hurricanes and tornadoes are anticipated. Winters are already growing shorter. Snow will quickly melt to become run-off and flooding. Expect more dust storms across the Great Plains and the return of giant haboobs.

Here in the desert southwest, we expect increased temperatures and longer air-conditioning seasons that require greater demands for air-conditioning and electricity. Water is quickly becoming the most critical resource to the high quality of life desert residents possess.

Tomorrow's water will largely come from the seas. It will be desalinated and pumped inland to help fill Lake Mead - to be redistributed to Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico. Throughout the entire southwest the highest priorities for water are quickly becoming focused on sustaining people and manufacturing food. Indoor urban agriculture and aquaculture is already happening. New vegetable proteins and fish will likely emerge to replace livestock and alfalfa farming Knowing this, how do we proceed and prepare for our futures?

For Americans it all goes back to Place. Those of us studying the effects of global warming and climate change that is occurring within the United States realize our continued survival relies upon our thinking and working through these complex and interconnected issues at a local level, and creating solutions that can be implemented within our neighborhoods and communities prior to each problem becoming insurmountable.

With the reluctance of most Americans as well as reluctance on the part of our states and national government to deal with issues affecting climate change within the USA today, sustainability becomes a local, Place by Place issue. We know what may work in New York City is not necessarily a solution for Dallas – or Denver for that matter.

There are some universal goals however. Practice conservation. Use what you buy; better yet, create a collective pool of friends and buy one item for the entire group to share. Pass on your no longer used items to others so they don’t have to buy one themselves.

Everything we do to reduce manufacturing helps nature. We have to change ourselves to change our culture as consumers. Similarly, eat what you buy. Wasted food is tragic. Keep your cars longer. Walk more often or take public transit. Recycle. Use your local library.

I begin with conservation, because what we don’t spend on purchases we can use to upgrade our house or apartment to reduce lighting, electrical and air-conditioning demands; and add insulation, storm windows and doors, window film and landscaping to shade south and west exposures.

Over time, coping with climate change is going to be expensive. The price of electricity is continuously rising. Consequently added costs to produce anything will be passed on to us as consumers. Where it’s feasible invest in solar systems or wind generators for creating hot water and electricity on site.

Next, become civically engaged. Promote and support increased development density. Conserving land reduces tax money that must be dedicated to infrastructure operations and maintenance. The more compact the systems are, the less it costs to keep them functioning properly. Additionally, buildings and structures that shade the streets and their neighbors reduces the urban heat sink effect and demands for air-conditioning. Compact populations support walking, bicycle riding and the use of public transit – that improves air quality and public health along with helping nature heal.

Those of us working to constrain the effects of climate change upon the United States can only succeed when our efforts are supported by the public-at-large. We can no longer stop climate change, but we can create a more resilient America when people within our nation’s communities care. The process begins at home – with us and our neighbors.

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